Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (7 page)

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And now the authorization for Collingwood's sentence had arrived. The maximum of thirty-six lashes with the cat-o'-nine tails, not just for his escape, but also for his terrorizing of the heavily pregnant young woman. Dr Power ran his hand over his jaw. A few days previously, a flustered and red-faced Florrie Bennett had come to his door with the letter from her little mistress, which, once he had read it, he had secreted where no one could ever find it, and now he had committed it to ashes. What could he do? Collingwood – though of course he was referred to by his prison number only – had improved somewhat. At first, the doctor had feared consumption, but upon examination and with the history of pneumonia at Exeter gaol eighteen months previously, he had concluded that it was a recurrence of the same ailment, the patient's general health having been weakened, like so many, by the harsh prison conditions. This new episode had most likely been triggered by the inactivity of lying for days and nights on end on the stable floor, which, though dry enough for animals, was damp by human standards. The painful, scourging cough and bloodstained sputum was the first stage of pleurisy before the pleural cavity filled with cushioning fluid. After ten days propped upright in bed, with an hourly hobble up and down the infirmary to help drain the lungs, together with the superior invalid diet, the felon's constitution, which must have been generally strong, had allowed him to improve considerably. But he was nowhere near sufficiently recovered to endure the barbaric torture to which he had been sentenced.

And yet . . .

Dr Power dropped his head into his hands. It was a huge risk to take, but it was the only way to save Collingwood from the entire punishment. A total of three hundred and twenty-four strokes of each vicious tail clawing at the young,
flesh and horribly disfiguring him for life – well, it was unthinkable. Though a heavy leather hide was placed as protection over the vital organs, within a few lashes, the bruised and swelling welts would open and run with blood until the cat could cut through to the bone. The agony of it must be indescribable, the torment reaching to every fibre of the body. The physician shuddered. He had seen it many times, and now, Dear Sweet Jesus, he was to witness it again. He shook his head. What in the name of God was he doing in this job?

He stood up, his eyes screwed tightly shut at what he knew he must do.

The prisoner's face was inscrutable as his wrists and ankles were put in chains, spreadeagling him on the flogging frame. Some offered resistance as the moment of punishment came, but this fellow waited patiently while the problem of how to secure the plaster cast was solved, as the prison surgeon would not have it removed. When he offered the felon a gag for his mouth, he refused with a shake of his head, but the doctor leant forward to hiss in his ear.

‘Take it, you fool. I don't want to have to stitch your tongue or your lip as well. For God's sake, do as I say. Mrs Chadwick won't want to have risked herself for nothing.'

He drew back hastily, not wanting to arouse the suspicions of the governor and the burly, unfeeling warder who had been chosen to deliver the gruesome punishment. But he caught the flash of amazed comprehension in the convict's eyes as he took up his spectator's position. And then he shuddered as he saw the governor give the nod to begin.

He had known great, swarthy bullies to holler like babies from the very first stroke, but this unfortunate lad scarcely flinched, his firm jaw set like granite and his narrowed eyes locked on to some point of focus on the far wall and merely twitching as the whipped ends of the cat raked like barbs into his exposed back. Dr Power's own sickened heart pounded inside his chest, sweat prickling beneath his shirt just as it poured from the prisoner's face and ran down his bare chest in rivulets. By the count of five, nothing had escaped his lips but a whimper, and the physician clenched his fists into tight balls. Dear God Almighty, give me something, lad! And then the pitiless warder, irritated beyond measure by his victim's silence, seemed to add extra force to the sweep of his arm as he slammed the cat through the air. The shock of the redoubled agony was so powerful, the convict could not cry out. Instead, his chest rasped with a sharp and massive intake of breath that caused his inflamed lungs to react with a spluttering cough.

Dr Power almost rejoiced. It was what he had prayed for. At a repeat of the warder's sadistic action, the bound man almost choked on the prolonged coughing it drew from his strained insides. Again and again, until it exploded into one continuous, violent spasm. The surgeon observed carefully the tortured criminal. With his arms spread above his head, his already concave stomach was so taut with suffering, there seemed little between it and his spine. The gag in his mouth had turned scarlet, and in his already weakened state, his head had drooped forward and his shoulders were hanging from his stretched arms.

Dr Power held up his hand. ‘That's it, sir. He's had enough,' he pronounced, turning to the governor.

‘What?' The warder's eyes bulged in his face, the veins standing out like ropes in his thick neck. His good friend, who had been on duty when the prisoner had made his escape, had immediately been dismissed, he and his family being thrown out of their home in Princetown and out on to the street without a by-your-leave. The fact that he had been taking a swig from his hip flask at the time and so was guilty of gross negligence of duty didn't make any difference to his colleague, who was gunning to take his revenge on the escapee. ‘He's only had ten, the bastard!' he spat viciously.

‘Eleven, actually. And if he coughs like that any more, he'll rupture his diaphragm. Sir?' he questioned, again addressing the governor.

‘I thought you had pronounced him fit?' was the reply.

Dr Power frowned darkly. He must be careful what he said. ‘Yes, I had. He seemed much recovered, but the weakness in his lungs must be deep-rooted and so can flare up very easily. His constitution must be considerably worse than it appears.'

The governor seemed to consider for a moment, but then to the doctor's utter relief, he nodded his agreement.

‘Take him down carefully,' Dr Power instructed at once, ‘or we'll have a corpse on our hands.'

The warder shot a disgruntled glare at the surgeon and then gave a reluctant shrug. What would one more dead convict matter? As far as he was concerned, he'd be pleased if the devil died. And as the felon was released from his restraints, he collapsed almost senseless into the doctor's arms. Raymond Power ground his teeth. He had instructed his surprised medical assistant to have a morphine injection at the ready. He would treat this poor wretch's mutilated back with the greatest care, binding down the swollen flesh and mending it where possible with the neatest stitches and the finest thread. He would be scarred, yes, but the doctor would make sure it was kept to the minimum, and nowhere near as badly as if he had taken the full thirty-six lashes. And if Dr Power's recommendations were heeded, as they most likely would be, he never would. For the doctor felt he was fully justified in writing in Collingwood's medical notes that, due to his predisposition to pneumonia, he should never be flogged again.

The physician knew he had done what he had not only for the sake of the wronged man, but for the lovely young woman who had begged for his help. And the guilt of it would go with him to the grave.

‘I need to send a telegram to London,' Charles announced coolly. ‘It's raining hard so I'm going to get Ned to take me in the wagonette. I trust you can behave yourself while I'm out?'

Rose was sitting in the drawing room with her feet up, supposedly reading a book. But though her eyes were travelling along each line of the page, the meaning of the words was failing to register in her brain. She was alive only to the pain in her heart, and could think only of what she could do to rectify the situation. How could she get Gospel back? The commotion she had heard out in the stable yard had been the animal kicking up a fuss, literally. But not because of his dislike of Ned, as she had thought, but because he was being taken away by a stranger. Oh, God, if only she had known what was going on! Although what she could have done, locked up in the bedroom, she didn't know.

And then there was Seth. Florrie had duly delivered the letter to Dr Power and had also been to visit Mrs Cartwright, who had promised to have a word with her husband, although she doubted there was anything Jacob could do. Rose had, of course, received no news of what had happened to Seth. In one way, it was a relief, for until she did, she could cling to the hope that he had been spared his punishment. What she could do for him in the long run, she wasn't sure either. But one thing was certain: while Charles still distrusted her, he would continue to curtail her freedom. So, although she seethed with frustration and resentment, she must play the dutiful, obedient wife until that trust was restored.

‘Of course. And what do you think I'm likely to get up to, anyway, when I'm eight months pregnant? I feel like a beached whale.' She flashed him her most winsome smile, and then looked down at her hands as they lovingly stroked over her bulging belly. If there was one thing that would gratify Charles, it was the thought of his unborn son.

‘Well, you just take care. I'll be as quick as I can. I don't want to be out in this any longer than I have to. You wouldn't think we're just about into summer, would you? It's bucketing down, and all we've got is that wretched wagonette. I keep promising myself to acquire some covered conveyance. I really must do so! This is bloody ridiculous. I'm going to get soaked!'

Rose smirked quietly to herself as he went out of the room tutting under his breath. She hoped he would catch a cold and die from it after what he had done. She still couldn't believe that Gospel was no longer there, and kept going out to the stables, expecting him to have escaped from wherever he was and have found his way home. But only the dogs were there to greet her, and endearing as they were, they couldn't mend her broken heart.

She hauled herself to her feet now and went over to the front window. She could scarcely see for the lashing rain that drove against the glass, but a few minutes later, the wheels of the wagonette crunched on the gravel as Ned, hunched in a sou'wester and waterproof cape, drove out from the side of the house. Charles was sitting aloft behind him, back straight as a mine rod, holding an enormous umbrella, which threatened at any moment to be turned inside out by the gusting wind. Rose gave a bitter, sardonic laugh. This was exposed Dartmoor, not a London street, and he really did look quite stupid!

But this was the moment she had been waiting for, and she lumbered over to where Florrie had been sitting in one of the more upright chairs, knitting a baby's bonnet and pretending not to observe the scene between Rose and her husband.

‘Quickly, Florrie,' she hissed urgently. ‘While he's gone, I'm going to look in the study. There must be a bill of sale or something in there. It might tell me who Charles sold Gospel to. The devil won't tell me. I need you to stand guard and warn me when he comes back.'

Florrie put down her knitting. ‘Of course,' she whispered back. ‘Quickly, then. I'll watch from the window. I'll see him first from there.'

‘Thank you, Florrie.'

Rose's pulse trundled at her temples as she slipped into the study. All was neat and tidy as always. Where should she begin? Surely Charles wouldn't have been so careless as to leave such evidence on the desk, but it seemed the obvious place to start. There were two piles of papers sitting on the inlaid leather and she rifled through them at speed. Letters from his broker and solicitor, all relating to business.

She sighed, and glanced around the room. Two of the walls were lined with polished wood shelves, all nicely scrolled along the edges when they had first been installed for Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt's friend eighty years or so previously. Charles had transported some of his favourite books down from London, joining those that Rose herself had brought from Cherrybrook, but most of the shelves were empty. There certainly weren't any business papers lurking on them. She would try the drawers of the desk, then.

There were three on either side. Rose's hands shook and she realized her palms were sweating as she opened the top one on the left. Writing paper, envelopes, nothing more. The next was full of household bills, accounts. The coal merchant in Princetown. Rose remembered the horrible day she had discovered that her father's cheques were being returned by the bank, and that none of the coal they had consumed for almost a year had been paid for. It was all part of the reason why she had turned to Charles, to the man who was the answer to her prayers and who she believed she could love. And now he had betrayed her in the most cruel, unforgivable way he could.

The deep bottom drawer held company reports of the many enterprises Charles held investments in, among them the Kimberley diamond mine and the newer gold mines in South Africa. He had told her a little about them, reluctantly, as if a woman didn't have the wit to understand. But how could she possibly if he wouldn't explain it all to her? Just now, however, he was right that she wasn't interested. All she wanted was to discover who had bought Gospel so that she could try to get him back.

She went to open the top drawer on the right. It was locked, and Rose's heart sank to her boots. Of course, there could be important business papers in it, things he wouldn't want the servants to be able to see. Perhaps even documents that would show exactly how wealthy he was. There was the grand house in London, beautifully furnished, and with a fully employed staff even though Charles spent so little time there nowadays. There was never any expense spared, and he had bought Fencott Place without batting an eyelid. Rose's mouth twisted. She lived in the lap of luxury, but she paid for it dearly in Charles's bed – and now that her father was dead, he had taken Gospel, her only joy, away from her.

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